Friday, August 21, 2009

A confusion: Full Inerrancy

This morning, the class was told the difference between 'Absolute Inerrancy' and the view which the lecturer holds, 'Full Inerrancy'. The former simply means everything stated in the Bible is historically, theologically, scientifically, and etc-cally accurate.

Roland, our lecturer, said that his view is similar with Millard Erickson's Full Inerrancy. It is something like this:

"What the bible says and reports about God, human's salvation, and historical events are completely true. To say that these are true is different from saying that they are 'accurate' in the sense of modern historiography. For instance, while on the way to college in a bus, you saw an accident. Due to the severity of the accident, you were called to be a witness. In your testimony, you described that the accident involved a Honda, a Toyota, and a Yamaha motorbike. But later on, you discovered that it involved a Honda, a Suzuki, and a Harley Davidson moterbike. Your testimony of the occurrence of the accident is true though not accurate. Truthfulness keeps the big picture in tact, but not the details."

I am uneasy with this view. The example provided reveals the confusion over two different inquiries:

A. "Did the accident involving 3 vehicles took place this morning while you were on your way to college?" (Biblical eg. Did the conquest of Ai occured as described in the Bible?)

B. "What kind of vehicles involved in that accident?" (Biblical eg. How many soldiers were involved in the conquest of Ai?)

These are two different questions which require different answers. If you answer "Yes, it took place while I was on my way to college," to question A, then your answer is true and accurate (if the accident did took place).

If you answer, "There were a Honda, a Suzuki, and a Harley Davidson moterbike involved," to question A, then you are not answering the question (though your answer provides other details which are relevant to the accident, your answer does not correspond to the question. Relevance is not correspondence).

I think Full Inerrancy is basically a result of confusion between different types of inquiry. Due to this confusion, we have the equivalent dubious distinction between 'true' and 'accurate'. So I don't think Full Inerrancy help to make nuanced the concept of 'inerrancy', though it is an easy way out among those who want to give credits to historical-critical studies and the authority of the Bible at the same time.

For those who are interested in the details of Erickson's Full Inerrancy, you may refer to his 'Christian Theology, 2nd edition', p.248-265. You may read a summary of Erickson's view at Theology Matters, part 1, and part 2.

10 comments:

Marcus Mok said...

Hi Sze Zeng! I read your blog from the link in the Agora group mass email. Personally I'm taking part-time courses at BGST, so I read your experience and reflections at TTC with much interest :)

Concerning full inerrancy, I think what Erickson meant by 'accuracy' was really 'precision'. In the context of articulating his views, Erickson was contrasting with the position of 'Absolute inerrancy', which argues not only for truthfulness, but also the 'precise accuracy' of the fact reported (i.e. in a strict literal, scientific sense).

Thus, in a full inerrantist view, Scriptural writer can be truthful without being literally precise in accuracy (e.g. When Jesus fed the 5,000, the number of 5,000 is not an exact number. Full inerrancy takes into account approximations, hyperboles etc).

In a summary I did elsewhere, I wrote that full inerrancy maintains that the Bible is fully truthful in all that it affirms “when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given” (Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrines , p. 72)

So, perhaps the lecturer's illustration of full inerrancy isn't very inerrant, so to speak. It's a bit confusing to say that "your testimony of the occurrence of the accident is true though not accurate. Truthfulness keeps the big picture in tact, but not the details." I don't think that's what the full inerrantists have in mind.

On the other hand, I had to agree that this position is not without its difficulties. Just how do we differentiate what is the writer being truthful, and what is being precise/imprecise? My take is that many of these issues are tied in with hermeneutics. But I'm not firm on this yet.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Marcus,

Thank you for the comments. Glad to meet you :)

You wrote:
"Bible is fully truthful in all that it affirms when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given."

That is a dogmatic affirmation which is rather messy to me, like many other dogmas.

The fact is that there are many truthful affirmations in the Bible but many of those are not normative to us. Given the purpose of 'inerrancy' is to validates the authority of the Bible, the many practices that we do not carry out now go contradictory with the many truthful affirmations found in the Bible. And that undermines the very authority inerrantists want to affirm.

For eg. The Bible truthfully affirms the stoning on homosexuals to death, and there is no law in the NT that overrides this. So does that means Christians follow that? If not, then Christians are denying the biblical authority which they labored so much to uphold.

Just a thought.

Marcus Mok said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

I'm not sure why you would tie in inerrancy with authority. To me they are two distinct issues.

The use of 'affirms' in the Bible being "fully truthful in all that it affirms" is not referring to what it commands within its pages. The choice of the word 'affirms', in the context of where I'm quoting from, is to distinguish it from what it 'contains but not affirm'. For example, the book of Job contains words by Job's 3 friends. But their words are not what the writer of Job 'affirms'.

The question of what is normative and not normative is in the realm of biblical authority, which is not the issue here. I thought that the issue here is simply to clarify what was meant by 'full inerrancy'.

By this, I'm not saying that inerrancy has nothing to do with authority. Just trying to clarify the issue.

You might also want to engage the second part of the definition here, rather than dismissing it as 'messy' dogma.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Marcus,

Thank you for following up on this. Appreciate that.

Yes, both are different issues, but the tie is there in the nature of both issues. Not my attempt force them into a tie. If you want to find out why such tie, you may check out Jason Sexton's latest article here (if you haven't come across yet):
http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/journal-issues/34.1/Themelios_34.1.pdf

Yes, we are clarifying the working definition on 'Full Inerrancy', and thank you for taking time for this.

When I say that a dogma is messy, I'm not dismissing it. It is the nature of doctrines to be messy. So I didn't meant that to be read negatively.

I think the persisting problem with Full Inerrancy is that it doesn't answer any question which it was being developed to answer. Your own question over this dogma is a good example; which is true, which precise? Does human's salvation is precise? If matters pertaining to tangible issues like body counts is not precise, how then can we be sure intangible salvific matters like after-life is precise?

BTW I have two friends who are doing course at BGST too: Huai Tze and Chew Wee. Ring any bells?? :)

Marcus Mok said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Thanks also for taking the trouble to give the reference (your blog itself is an excellent source for useful materials! :). I took a quick read at the relevant part, and I appreciate where you're coming from. I would have to admit that I'm not as well-read in the area of inerrancy as I'd like. So what I'm doing is really to see how defensible is my tentative position, and where I need to 'brush up'. So let's keep it irenic. :)

In my understanding, while the position of full inerrancy does not answer every question, it does address the inadequacies of absolute inerrancy from which it departs. For instance, by asserting that the Bible is fully truthful in all that it affirms "when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given", it takes into account the context and limitations of the biblical writers. In a sense, it is a 'qualified' definition of inerrancy. This avoids insisting unnecessary interpretations such as the 'day' in Gen 1 MUST refer to 24-hour, or the body counts in war reports MUST be exact and precise, etc.

(Concerning war reports and body counts, archaelogical findings indicate that Ancient Near-East documents show that in their contexts, war figures are often exaggerated and blown out-of-scale, much similar to a hyperbolic effect. So reading OT figures in the light of that context at least makes one less insistent on a 'precise' counting, if you catch my drift)

Having said that, I don't think a full inerrantist will take everything in the Bible so fluidly! Doctrine of salvation is central to the Bible; body counts of wars are not. Also, in vital doctrines such as salvation, scientific precision is not the issue here; truthfulness is. So the comparison is quite a far-fetched one, at least in my opinion.

Also, why I still think we should discuss inerrancy apart from authority is this: since biblical inerrancy was meant to complement biblical authority, and not the other way round, why use arguments against biblical authority to undermine inerrancy?

Ok, I'll risk sounding incoherent if I continues...exhaustion after work getting the better of me :P

I'm quite a new part-time student at BGST, taking one course at a time, so no, I haven't got to meet your friends yet. Would love to though :)

You have a very keen mind and perspective, from what I've read on your blog, and I really enjoy interacting with your thoughts. Keep it up!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Marcus,

Thank you for your kind words.

It is very encouraging to sense your enthusiasm to seek and live for the truth, making me feel not so alone in the journey after all.

I find that the qualification of 'Full Inerrancy' (FI) is shared widely by the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy and its sister statement, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutic. It seems almost like FI is a summary of these two statements.

On your regards towards historical-critical approach to the Bible, i agree with you and wish to encourage you to further engage it extensively. For eg. If the ancients exaggerate body counts for hyperbolic effect to serve political and ethnic purposes, then we should not neglect the probability that such exaggeration was also applied in their religion. (for eg. the theme of YHWH as a 'warrior god' in the OT.)

Now if that is true, the historical-critical approach has enable us to peep into the condition of Bible's content are primarily to serve political and ethnic purposes. And if that is true, then the perspective on salvation, on God, etc stated in the Bible are first of all for a specific purpose of the ancients to serve their political and ethnic ends.

Have a good weekend.

brianoverholt said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

My name is Brian. I am a seminary student at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon in the United States. I felt that I could help to clear up some of the confusion on the issue of full inerrency.

First of all, I think that you are both right in recognizing that inerrancy and authority are both separate issues. When discussing the validity of an idea like full inerrancy you must be careful not to bring in complications from other theological doctrines. To do so makes the discussion too difficult. For example, your illustration of OT writers "exaggerating body counts for hyperbolic effect to serve political and ethnic purposes.”

It is a difficult enough task to prove that numbers were exaggerated in the first place. But it is certainly impossible to know if each exaggeration was intentional or simply a scribal error, or if the author only had approximate numbers to begin with, etc. Even if you knew the error was intentional, you could not possibly know, thousands of years later, what the specific motivation for the error was - political, ethnic or otherwise.

And as long as we can bring those questions to the issue of inerrancy, what about questions of manuscript authenticity, archaeological evidence, linguistic ambiguity, and so on. Do you see how quickly we can muddy the waters that way?

In order to be productive in the discussion of the idea of full inerrancy, you have to engage the issue on its own terms.

You have to first address whether or not you believe God to be the ultimate author of the scriptures. No need at this point to explain why you believe it or not. That is a different discussion.

If you do not believe God to have authored the scriptures through human writers, than the discussion of inerrancy is over. How can the scripture be inerrant if it is merely human?

However, if you do believe the scripture to be authored by God through human writers, then inerrancy is a possibility. Also, then it no longer matters whether the writers had political or ethnic motivations for writing anything - because we have already agreed that whatever was written was exactly what God wanted to be written. All that is left to determine to what degree we believe the scripture to be inerrant.

ABSOLUTE INERRANCY would say that, when the scripture records that Jesus fed the 5,000, that is EXACTLY how many people there were. God would not possibly let anything be recorded that is not EXACTLY true the way it is stated.

Further, absolute innerancy would say that when Solomon wrote of his beloved "YOUR TEETH ARE LIKE A FLOCK OF NEWLY SHORN EWES…” - that was a scientifically accurate description of her teeth.

FULL INERRANCY says that it is ridiculous to read the scripture this way. Full inerrancy would say that it is not of central importance to the message of scripture that there were EXACTLY 5,000 people that Jesus fed. It is entire plausible that the author, when he recorded the story, did not remember the exact number (if he ever knew the exact number) and simply recorded a rough estimate of the size of the crowd. Just as we would do today.

When, in the Song of Solomon, the groom says his beloved’s teeth are like newly shorn ewes, it is obviously figurative language that is trying to say her teeth look nice - not that her teeth are shaped like cattle.

You can bring in other arguments about the Bible affirming the stoning of homosexuals, but it just distracts from the larger question "IS ALL OF THE BIBLE THE INERRANT WORD OF GOD (INCLUDING THAT AFFIRMATION)?" Or is it acceptable to dismiss portions of scripture that we don't like or are uncomfortable with.

brianoverholt said...

I personally believe that all of scripture is the "fully" inerrant word of God - including that bit about homosexuals. But I would also say that OT laws about stoning homosexuals or cutting off the genitals of adulterers are not applicable to us today, and anyone who thinks they are is not using a reliable hermeneutic methodology. Some laws God gave to His people to keep the nation of Israel pure unto himself. But Christ said the GREATEST commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself - and I don't think stoning is considered "love."

Oh, and if we discovered that one of the Old Testament writers got the numbers wrong on a particular battle (or the number of Hebrews leaving Egypt - there's a potential mistake for you) it wouldn't shake my faith in scripture a bit. Because what was the central point of the exodus? It wasn't "Hey there were THIS many Hebrews when they left Egypt!" No, the central point was the fact that God did exactly what He promised to do and led them out of bondage when it looked nearly impossible. As long as that is preserved, I think that God wouldn't care so much if somebody botched a number.

Anyway, I hope that helps. God's blessings on both of you as you continue to seek Him and the truth of His word. You both seem like awesome guys. Take care.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Brian,

Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Appreciate your time.

You highlighted that, "You have to first address whether or not you believe God to be the ultimate author of the scriptures. No need at this point to explain why you believe it or not. That is a different discussion. If you do not believe God to have authored the scriptures through human writers, than the discussion of inerrancy is over. How can the scripture be inerrant if it is merely human?"

I think believing that God as the ultimate author of scriptures does not entail scriptures being inerrant, in the same way believing that God as the ultimate creator of humans does not entail humans being inerrant.

I think Full Inerrancy tries too hard to separate the theological from the historical and scientific, which often is not the case to the ancients who transmit these texts. In that way, Full Inerrancy blurs not only the history and sciences as perceived by the ancients, but also their theological messages. Take example the exodus, if it didn't happened (regardless of the actual size of the event), then the promises of YHWH to the Israelites were just figment of their ancestors' imagination; theologies developed from thin air.

Just a thought.

All the best in your endeavor! Nice to meet you.

reasonable said...

Hello Brian,

You wrote: "However, if you do believe the scripture to be authored by God through human writers, then inerrancy is a possibility."

It is only a possibility just like the existence of a Pink Unicorn is also a possibility.

What we need is not just possibility; before one believe in inerrancy (or Pink Unicorn), one ought to first assess the data critically to see if, EMPIRICALLY, the data shows a high likelihood of inerrancy (or the data shows a high likelihood that the Pink Unicorn exists).

God "inspiring" some or all those documents in the bible (whether the Protestant bible or the thicker Catholic bible) does not mean that God had (or intended to) produced an inerrant bible. God being morally good and being omnipotent does not mean that God produced a world without evil. God works in a more complex (probably wiser) way than those straght-forward models imagined by both fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians. Fundamentalist Atheists said God does not exist because God does not fit into their simplistic model (e.g. if the omnipotent God exists, then there would be no evil in the world); Fundamentalist Christians think that if God is the ultimate author of the bible, then the bible must be inerrant since God cannot err (this is the simplistic model of those Christians).


You also wrote: "whatever was written was EXACTLY what God wanted to be written."

How do you know? What inference can u draw from the empirical data to show that? How do u know that God did not intend the bible not to be inerrant in the say "full inerrancists" imagined? Again, there ought to be sufficient evidence before one should believe in the existence of Pink Unicorns.

God's use of human beings as direct authors could mean that he allows the freedom of imperfections and errors coming into the text. God may have no problem with that.

In the end, which is a likely position (whether full inerrancy or non-full inerrancy) should be based upon a critical analysis of the empirical biblical text and the relevant extra-bilical text.